Hubert Humphrey once implored his Senate colleagues to get them ringing. And when they rang, they showered onlookers with clouds of dried pigeon droppings.
Now 29 years after former Queen Juliana presented them to Harry Truman, the 49 bells of Arlington's Netherlands Carillon are threatened with an ignoble -- perhaps permanent -- silence.
On the eve of the 200th anniversary of trade and amity relations between the two countries, there's no need to ask for whom the Reagan budget bells are tolling. The National Park Service says it cannot afford the $3,125 needed to keep the carillon's chimes ringing.
"I've never experienced anything like it," says Frank Law, the carillonneur who is credited with single-handedly saving the monument from oblivion for the last 20 years. "Never. NEVER!"
Stashed between the manicured lawns of Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial, the greyish steel edifice rises into the Arlington skyline like a giant, half-completed elevator shaft. Years went by before a sign was placed on the nearby George Washington Memorial Parkway to announce its existence.
For the first 10 years the carillon was allowed to fall into such a state of rusting, creaking disrepair that those who played the bells under Law's direction -- the carillonneurs -- feared it would collapse around them. One of them tacked a horeshoe -- for good luck -- on the wall of the control cabin. Public visits to the tower's interior were declared unsafe. The sight of its decay prompted some Dutch visitors to burst into tears.
Offered to the United States as a gift of gratitude for Holland's liberation in World War II, the carillon mainly has been a pain in bureaucratic backsides, a source of unspeakable embarrassment to Dutch officialdo, and cause for mindboggling frustration among those who like to hear the bells.
On her first state visit to the United States, Queen Juliana, in an address to a crowd of dignitaries on Washington's Meridian Hill in April 1952, presented President Truman with 32 of the bells. She gave him one of the smallest as a token.
Truman responded, saying that "no gift could be a better symbol of the harmonious relations which have always existed and which should always continue to exist between The Netherlands and the United States."
The records of that moment now turn yellow and brittle in the files. Like the bells themselves, the words soon were forgotten, evidence, only, of the hollow tolling of diplomacy.
For two years the bells sat on Meridian Hill, waiting for the remaining 17 to arrive here. They were uncrated and hung in yet another temporary structure on the polo grounds of West Potomac Park while the Dutch tried to collect funds for a permanent tower.
Finally, six years later, the imposing tower was built, the enameled bronzed steel plates bolted to an erector-set superstructure. Two bronze lions, designed by a Dutch sculptor, were placed at the tower's base. The bells were hoisted into place. And on May 5, 1960, before a crowd of 300 persons and with the bells chiming, then-Interior Secretary Fred A. Seaton dedicated the Netherlands Carillon.
When the ceremony ended and everyone walked away, there were no plans for playing the bells.
Reacting to an article by Washington Post music critic Paul Hume lamenting the disuse of the bells in 1963, Hubert Humphrey took the floor of the U.S. Senate and read the article into the Congressional Record.
Humphrey predicted millions of Americans would be visiting the nearby grave site of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy and promised to have the bells played at least once a week. "Surely," he said, "the reactivation of the Netherlands Carillon would be most fitting and proper under these circumstances."
Unknown to both Hume and Humphrey, the carillon was being played. The year before, a carillonneur had arranged for nine recitals during the summer. His name was Frank Law.
Law, music director of the Washington Memorial National Carillon in Valley Forge, Pa., had first played the Netherlands instrument in 1961. Twenty years later, he still does not know how he was chosen. A group of Arlington ministers simply called one day, asking if he would play the bells for a sunrise Easter service that year.
After Humphrey's speech, Law wrote the senator about his own plans to have the bells played. The next spring, when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall announced 24 concerts for the following summer, Humphrey and Law exchanged a half-dozen letters, a correspondence that was to continue until Humphrey's death.
Already the carillon was falling apart. The bronze enamel was bubbling all over and flaking off. Rust was everywhere. And pigeons had made the tower a favorite roost, depositing tons of detritus.
The clavier, a system of pegs and wires arranged like a keyboard to play the bells, was poor from the start and quickly went to pieces. Law, partly through his new congressional contacts, arranged many meetings with Park Service officials over the years, trying to convince them of the need for repairs.
"It was a pig's sty," said Law. "But they [Park Service officials] kept sending me to higher- and higher-ups. They thought that if they went higher in rank, they would shut me up. But the higher they went, the more upset I got."
Law also wrote regularly to Queen Juliana about the program schedules. He never told her of the carillon's condition and feared she might actually visit it. Sometimes he went to her directly for help.
"I nailed her for the tulip bulbs," said Law, referring to 10,000 plants the Queen shipped over, prompting the Park Service to dig out 49 flower ---- beds.
By 1970, Law already had been forced to discontinue one concert when the linkage to one of the largest bells broks. At one recital, the swinging of the bells dislodged, a cloud of dried pigeon droppings that drifted into the upward-gazing faces of the audience below.
One carillonneur attributed a lung infection known as "pigeon fever" to his exposure to the dust.
Through it all, the Dutch government remained diplomatically silent, expressing its dismay only privately to Law, he says, and never in writing. "It may indeed be one of the forgotten corners of the Park Service," said embassy spokesman Robert Haslach last week. "It may be there is in the United States none of that tradition, which might account for some of that neglect.But we really can't be involved in budget cutting and internal priorities. That's their prerogative."
In 1970, the carillon's condition was exposed in a newspaper article and almost immediately the Park Service announced a $300,000 renovation plan. The clavier has since been replaced, the tower repainted and fenced off to birds. The largest bells no longer swing.
The plan to cut out recitals -- eliminating $3,125 to cover the $125 cost of each concert -- caught Law by surprise. "This doesn't mean the bells won't be played," said Richard Ring, chief ranger for the parkway. "We have an automatic player up there."
"Those damned automatic contraptions don't have any expression," counters Law. "Without expression, music is dead."
The automatic player has not worked for two years.
Law, once a Flying Fortress bombardier who flew on missions over the Low Countries during World War II, waves his arms, "They don't understand it . . . What can these bells do if nobody brings them to life? They're live memorials. If we didn't intend to play it, we shouldn't have accepted it in the first place."
The embassy, Law said, had planned to include the carillon in celebration of the 200-year trade agreement aniversary next year. "They wanted to do something special."